Mark Kreidler

Wednesday, October 3
Updated: October 11, 12:48 PM ET
The non-rookie rookie

By Mark Kreidler
Special to

Right, let's just check the statistics here. Glancing at our Hopeless Baseball Geek Personal Steno Book, we find that Seattle's Ichiro Suzuki:

Ichiro Suzuki
Ichiro surprised everyone by being even better than advertised.
(a) Became the second rookie ever to lead one of the major leagues in batting, standing atop the American League at .350;

(b) Finished with 242 hits, the most in the majors since Bill Terry collected 254 for the 1930 New York Giants;

(c) Stole 56 bases to lead both leagues; and

(d) Most importantly, became the first guy we can remember to come in from another country and get to wear his first name where his last name is supposed to be on his uniform.

Think about that for a second. If, here in the first postseason of the rest of his life, we're going to sit around and start adding up the ways in which Ichiro either surprised or amazed us this year (and you know we are), then isn't the whole first-name thing a perfectly appropriate place to begin?

Fernando Valenzuela had Fernandomania, but it still said "Valenzuela" on the back of his No. 34 uniform for the Dodgers. Suzuki is different. He is immediately different in the sense that if one writes "Suzuki" in an article, general confusion may ensue, whereas if one writes "Ichiro," the whole baseball-loving planet not only understands the reference but conjures a quick mental image of a man slapping a line drive to the outfield and heading for first base.

Or, to put it another way, one night in Baltimore, with the Mariners visiting the Orioles, a friend of ours observed Ichiro running to his position in right field and said, "What's with the first-name-on-the-uniform thing?"

And several innings and three or four Suzuki-vintage moments later, that friend leaned over and said by way of recognition, "Oh."

That's Ichiro in 2001. And the most intriguing thing of all, really, is that he was supposed to be this good. It's just that nobody imagined it actually happening.

You may hear a decent debate in the coming weeks about Ichiro's status as the AL Rookie of the Year. On the one mitt, the man is no rookie -- a fully developed professional athlete just weeks shy now of his 28th birthday, he arrived from the Japan League as a complete product. On the other, of course, is the notion that we'd likely have no problem embracing as a "rookie" a similar 27-year-old player who had spent six or seven years in the U.S. minor leagues.

It's an old argument. The thing is, Ichiro has made it relevant again. And how? By really being that good, is how.

Ichiro Suzuki
Right Field
Seattle Mariners
157 8 69 127 56 .350
You have to understand Americans' general perception of baseball in Japan to understand why Seattle's enormous investment in Ichiro ($13.125 million for the negotiating rights, and then a reported $15 million for his subsequent three-year contract) was perceived as something of a longshot in terms of return. Everywhere you turned, you found someone willing to stand up and say that Suzuki was the real deal; but for so many of us, images of guys like Leron Lee going over there -- either to rehabilitate their careers or to conclude them -- and then dominating Japanese pitching were too fixed in our minds to erase.

Geez, Arthur Rhodes just led the Japan League in home runs. How hard can it be?

(Wait: It was Tuffy. Never mind. The point stands made.)

But Ichiro wasn't merely as good as advertised; he was better. It's hard to remember an athlete in any major league sport coming into the U.S. from another country and performing with such authority.

Every now and then you draw a more or less valid NBA comparison in terms of impact: Arvydas Sabonis (if only he'd been younger), Drazen Petrovic (if only he'd lived longer), players like that. Ichiro is the equal of any and the superior to most, if not all. He started out hot and he got hotter, and then Ichiromania really kicked in -- but you knew all that. What seems less publicly evident is that through July, August, September, as the mania died down and the Asian press contingent following his every move became normal business procedure rather than media-circus story fodder -- through those months beyond which critical mass was attained, Ichiro was as good as he'd ever been. Maybe better.

How his presence affects the Mariners in the playoffs is yet to be fully known. How he affected them during the season is a matter of historical record: A 116-46 mark to which he contributed with his bat, his shoes, his glove, his arm and his head.

And how he is regarded in the major leagues, the American major leagues, is the rarest notion of them all: Promise fulfilled. You apply it to baseball at large, and it practically makes Ichiro the one in a million case that you seem to hear so much about. Put the first name on the back of the uniform, and that damn nearly seals it.

Mark Kreidler of the Sacramento Bee is a regular contributor to

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